On the 18th of Shevat (this past Wednesday) we acknowledged the 50th Yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It is indeed appropriate that the yahrzeit of our school’s namesake and inspiration falls in the same week that we begin to read about the journey of Bnai Israel from slavery in Mitzrayim to freedom. In 1963, at a conference on race relations in America, Heschel famously said that it was more difficult for a black American student to cross some university campuses in American than it was for Bnai Israel to cross the Red Sea.
This week’s parshah begins the second book of the Torah – Sefer Shemot (Exodus). We read of the courageous midwives Sifra and Puah who refused to obey Pharoah’s orders to slay all first born males. From their courage and fortitude, we learn the middah, “refuse to do bad deeds.”
Next week, in honour of Heschel’s Yahrzeit, and coinciding with Martin Luther King Junior Day, we will be celebrating A.J. Heschel / Martin Luther King Jr. Tikkun Olam Week at the Toronto Heschel School.
Like the midwives of the Exodus story, both Heschel and King were exemplary role models of people who reject the wrong and bad deeds they see happening around themselves. Heschel and King had a special relationship founded on their mutual respect for the dignity of human beings and the obligation of religious leaders to stand up against injustice. In March, 1965, Heschel joined with King and other religious leaders on a famous march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to protest the lack of civil democratic rights for African Americans. Heschel declared that on that march he felt as though his “legs were praying.”
Next week at Heschel our Junior High Tikkun Olam Committee will be teaching us about the unique contributions of Heschel and King to tikkun olam. They have posted inspirational quotes from the two leaders throughout the school and they will be visiting each class to read a story about Heschel and King. Each students will be invited to consider what she or he would “stand up for,” and pray for with their legs.
Today, we still recognize in many parts of the world, and even close to home, Pharoahs of different forms whose hearts are hardened with prejudice and injustice. For Rabbi Heschel, our story of freedom is linked to all those who are oppressed. This Shabbat may we consider how to take up our Jewish obligation to help in whatever small or big way we can to defeat Pharaoh and continue the journey to freedom for all people that we began 2000 years ago.